BGI at Pinchot alum, Letitia Webster, is taking on a monumental task: leading the corporate social responsibility (CSR) program for the little known but immensely influential VF corporation. VF recently named Letitia Corporate Responsibility Director, overseeing sustainability efforts for the parent brand of The North Face, Timberland, Vans, Nautica and many others.
Outdoor enthusiast Letitia Webster’s five years of experience launching and leading the well-regarded North Face sustainability program made her a logical choice to spearhead the corporate-wide initiative at parent company VF, established in 2011.
Since then, Webster has focused on defining processes to help VF’s highly visible brands — including North Face, Timberland and Nautica — deliver on their sustainable business aspirations. Two of her biggest tactical projects: readying VF’s 2014 sustainability report (in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines) and creating an internal scorecard for tracking and reporting energy and carbon emissions reductions.
What’s up next? VF’s senior director of corporate responsibility shares her ideas for phase two of the program, which will include adopting aggressive water conservation measures and building an in-house wiki for helping brands and business units share best practices, and why she regards sustainability as an “ultra-marathon.”
Heather Clancy: You’ve got quite a few things going on. What’s your top priority?
Letitia Webster: When I got here it was pretty much a clean slate, which is great, but at the same time it wasn’t much to work with. So my first strategy was building a foundation; it was building governance structure, management systems, implementing data management, hiring a staff and team, understanding our footprint, doing measurements. That’s culminating in our first sustainability report that’s going to be coming out in just a couple of months.
My priority is getting that report out, and starting to think about how we transition from sustainability strategy 1.0, which is building a program and building infrastructure, to what I’m calling 2.0, which is unlocking the value of sustainability for the corporation and really thinking about how sustainability can actually drive revenue growth, build brand equity and help the corporation meet our 17 by 17 growth plan — $17 billion [in revenue] by 2017.
Clancy: Who is helping you with that?
Webster: I report into finance. So I report into the head, the CFO and the chief accounting officer and controller. VF is a very financially disciplined company — that’s something that we’re very well known for. I am challenged to really help provide perspective in terms of what is the value for the company. The leadership team is eager, and I think it will only help accelerate our program. So our leaders are thinking about how we integrate sustainability throughout the organization. I think really being able to cement [that concept] in dollars and cents and its value is really going to help. The short answer is finance is really helping me think that through.
Clancy: Where will that lead you first? Is there a particular area that’s got your attention as a result or are you kind of finetuning your priorities underneath that?
Webster: To be honest, it’s a little too early to determine where we’re headed. I think what we’re doing is overlaying our traditional sustainability materiality assessments that we’ve done with stakeholders with our key business strategies and key business drivers, like direct-to-consumer, international, strategy and innovation. Then we’re layering in what is the risk assessment, cost reductions and revenue upside sustainability can bring? Ideally, this will help us identify the big things we need to be focusing in on. Does that make sense?
Clancy: OK, let me ask you about something specific: water conservation. What’s new for you on that front? Is there anything in particular?
Webster: Water is one of the biggest impacts we have: water use, not only in the growing of raw materials and the processing of fiber — especially around synthetics and dyeing and finishing — but also in consumer use. So it’s a major issue. Let me back up for just a second here. VF is unique in that we produce 30 percent of our product in our owned and operated factories throughout mostly Central America. That’s very unique [among] apparel companies. What that allows us to do — and we’ve been doing it for 100 years — is really control those costs, right? So we manage those resources, energy and water and materials down to the nano; we’re very careful about how we manage those.
We’ve done a really good job in our own manufacturing [processes] of reducing our water. I’ll give you an example. In our factory in Torreon, Mexico, where it’s a finishing factory, a washhouse, too, we have recycled and are reusing 45 percent of our water right now. We have new technology coming in by the end of the year that will actually recycle water by 85 percent. …
We have a lot of those kinds of examples, especially around wastewater. That’s another big issue for apparel, wastewater, because we use a lot of chemicals. That said, we are embarking on developing an overall water strategy for VF starting next year. That’s the next big thing I’m focused on. We really focused on carbon and energy for the first two years, developing a climate change strategy. We are now moving into water and really thinking about a water strategy: where do we use our water, how do we use our water, where do we have risk in our supply chain around water scarcity, what materials are at risk due to climate change and the impacts it has on water in different regions. Whether it’s flooding or droughts or the need to reallocate water to communities versus agriculture, those are real issues that we have to be paying attention to.
Clancy: What are your thoughts on improving the rate of apparel reuse or repurposing?
Webster: Obviously a good portion of our products are [made from] cotton, but [in addition] a good portion of our products are synthetics. So if you think about a synthetic, a synthetic is — and this is true for cotton, too — a synthetic is trapped energy. Synthetics are mostly petroleum-based. Many of our products that we’re doing with synthetics are just recycled PET plastic water bottles. Basically what we can do with a North Face jacket that’s a synthetic is re-melt it down and make it into something new. So you need to think about how we reuse that jacket, not just in terms of consumer reuse, but how we take it back and actually make it into something new.
To me that’s one concept around reuse and recycling. But then there’s that other concept of the sharing economy and how that is just growing and growing and we’re seeing it even in outdoor equipment. A lot of people don’t want to buy one tent for one camping trip every couple of years, so how do we think about our business models and start thinking about how we promote that sharing economy, how do we ensure that we’re having those conversations with the consumers and the customers as well.
Clancy: You’re obviously working on the corporate strategy, but that sits over some very distinct brands known for their environmental policies — NorthFace, Timberland and Nautica among them. How do you give them the freedom to innovate? The fact that you’re working on this big corporate strategy and approach, how does that permeate back to them now?
Webster: We tell them keep the pedal on the metal and just keep going. We continually encourage them to be innovative, think about sustainability and how it resonates with our consumers, how to make more commercial sustainable products. Our responsibility is when to enable that and how we do enable it. There’s a couple of different ways we can do that. Then, our responsibility is how we share those learnings and best practices with the rest of the organization, right? So we don’t want to inhibit them, but we do want to take those learnings, best practices and share them with the other brands.
One thing we are doing is we’ve got innovation centers, outside of sustainability, that we’re working with to embed sustainability into the innovation process. We’re building very strategic innovation centers. We’ve got one here in Greensboro, N.C., around jeanswear. We have one in Alameda, Calif., that’s part of the North Face building around technical apparel, and we’ve got one around technical footwear based in Stratham, N.H., next to the Timberland office. Those innovation centers are there to absolutely propel those businesses and keep them cutting-edge, and our job is to embed a sustainability lens into them.
Clancy: What lessons from North Face are you encouraging other brands to adopt?
Webster: North Face is one of the biggest brands in the outdoor industry and around some of these technical fabrics. We really started looking at our volume and our scale and the impact we have at some mills. One of the things we asked is, “Okay, what can we do around materials?” Because that’s really where the impact is. So, we went after the materials that have the biggest impacts and then layered in which the biggest volume materials. Then worked at the mills to solve some of that through a group called Bluesign [which has created a platform for sustainable textile production], among other things. So we had the volume and the scale on our side so we could get price parity, and that was a crucial, crucial piece to this and we could only do it because of the scale we had at that mill. So I think that’s key because the materials we chose go across a bunch of different products and a bunch of different categories and suddenly we have a story, right? The designers got excited because suddenly that material was in many different categories and they could all kind of embrace some sustainability; it wasn’t just exclusive to one product or one category, but suddenly we were raising the bar across VF.
Clancy: What’s been your most effective strategy for employee engagement?
Webster: I think it’s actually coming. We are doing a couple things; one is we just finished, as part of this strategy 1.0, a huge scorecard collection. So we literally created this online survey, that’s basically called a scorecard, and it went to every single facility, every single brand, every single retail store, and we asked very detailed questions about all of their activities around sustainability. So everything from community service to steps around products and materials to obviously energy, waste, water — all these kinds of practices.
We just are getting that data back, crunching it, cleaning it up and getting it organized. At the same time — now that we’ve got this data — we’re launching this tool on SharePoint as part of our intranet called our sustainability wiki. It is an in-house toolkit basically and resource center around sustainability for all of our associates to go in and find out what they can do, what best practices are out there, what they can learn from other people. The scorecards with all of their data crunched up and all kinds of basic business intelligence tools will be in that wiki.
The combination of those two together, I think, is going to be the most powerful engagement tool we have, because information is power. We’re going to be able to basically say, “Here’s one facility,” and compare it to another. Here’s a coalition, there’s a coalition; a brand versus brand, country versus country. You can basically slice and dice the information in a thousand different ways, and we can start creating some friendly competition. But we can also say, “Hey, if your facility or your products are not where you want them to be, here are tools, expertise, resources that you can go and can help you solve and unlock the potential you have.” Or “Here’s my e-mail; just call me,” or “Here’s some of the brands that are doing cool things; call them.”
Clancy: What’s your most pressing concern or challenge and how you’re tackling it?
Webster: The complexity and the decentralization of VF. We sit here at world headquarters in Greensboro, but frankly we have probably [just] 500, 600 people at world headquarters — we have 60,000 employees. So how do we get them all excited and enthused and understand what they can do and how important it is for them to do it?
I always say sustainability is a team sport. My team, we’re not that big. I’ve got a few people and it’s great and they’re powerful and smart and bright. [But] we can’t turn VF into a sustainable operation; we need everyone. I think about how do we align everyone? How do we get everyone moving on the same track so it’s not this shotgun-fragmented approach, but it’s laser-focused; we’re all moving in the same direction, we’re all aligned in what we need to accomplish. It’s hard when you literally have brand offices all over the world.
Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor?
Webster: Frankly I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve had a couple. … One of the most important things that I learned from one of my mentors was, especially around sustainability, because sometimes the thinking isn’t out-of-the-box, a lot of people just aren’t ready for it, and you’ve got to meet people where they are. You can’t go into a meeting and start talking about shared value if they don’t even understand what in the world sustainability is. You’ve got to understand where that organization is, what drives that organization, and meet it where it is and be able to integrate sustainability into the culture. Do not underestimate culture.
Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?
Webster: I think two things besides what I just said. Persistence: you just have to keep at it. It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon; it’s an ultra-marathon. You just have to stay at it. Also, go where the momentum is. You’re always going to have naysayers or people dragging their feet or saying it can’t be done, but you will find pods of people who have enthusiasm, they’re passionate, they want to do something. Go there. Go there and prove it. Go there and find a bright spot. Go there and find a result. When you start illustrating some success and people get onboard, they begin increasing confidence in you and can trust you as a team and as a function. They’ll be more willing to open up once they see that there’s some success out there.